(NEW YORK) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled proposals Wednesday afternoon to strengthen the state’s gun laws and close “loopholes” in the wake of the deadly Buffalo mass shooting over the weekend.
The announcement was planned before the weekend shooting, and was delayed by President Joe Biden’s Tuesday visit to Buffalo, Hochul’s hometown.
However, the issue takes on increased urgency as her administration reviews how the 18-year-old suspect, Payton Gendron, legally purchased his weapons and then made modifications that are illegal in New York, already home to some of the nation’s strictest gun laws.
Gendron was able to buy a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle in part because he was never subjected to New York’s red flag law, which would have prevented the store from selling him a weapon. He had undergone a mental health evaluation in June 2021, after New York State Police responded to his high school to investigate a report that the then-17-year-old Gendron made reference to murder-suicide in a paper he submitted as part of a class.
Broome County, New York, District Attorney Michael Korchak said during a news conference Wednesday that Gendron was participating in an online class when he “made some disturbing comments about murder and suicide,” which prompted the teacher to follow up to “get clarification.”
“[Gendron] indicated he was just joking and said L-O-L,” Korchak said. He said the teacher still reported the incident to the police.
Because Gendron was not on campus at the time, state police went to his home to interview him, where he again “indicated that this was a joke,” according to Korchak.
State police then took Gendron to Binghamton General Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, Korchak said, adding that Gendron stayed at the hospital overnight but was ultimately cleared.
“This defendant had been interviewed by a mental health professional and professional who deemed him to be not dangerous or not at risk,” Korchak said. “[Gendron] was released to the custody of his parents and returned home. He was actually cleared and went back to school and participated in his high school graduation.”
Korchak defended the school and state police, saying a review of the incident found it was handled “appropriately.” Neither police nor his school applied for a court petition that would have resulted in a red flag.
“The unfortunate thing is the New York State Police, school officials and mental health professionals, they don’t have a crystal ball,” Korchak said. “They can’t read into the future. They can only evaluate the subject on the information that they had at that time.”
On Wednesday, Hochul sought to take the guesswork out of what should be reported as red flag behavior. She said she is requiring state police to file an “extreme risk” order of protection when they encounter someone they believe poses a risk to himself or others.
Because no red flag warning was issued against Gendron, he was able to legally purchased the Bushmaster at a gun store in Endicott, New York, which authorities said he modified with an extended magazine that is illegal to own in New York. Investigators said he purchased the magazine at a Pennsylvania gun store 10 minutes from his home in Conklin.
Hochul also formally requested New York State Attorney General Letitia James investigate “the online resources that were used to amplify the acts and intentions of Payton Gendron,” according to a letter from the governor obtained by ABC News.
“The investigation should be directed at those platforms that may have been used to stream, promote or plan the event including, but not limited to Twitch (owned by Amazon) 4chan, 8chan and Discord,” the letter said.
The shooting was partly livestreamed on Twitch. The suspect allegedly posted chronological details of the attack online using Discord, according to law enforcement sources. He also posted on 4chan and 8chan, the sources said.
“Think about all the people who saw the livestream,” Hochul said. “The virus spreads and they find others to share their worldview, radicalizing others.”
The investigation by James could result in a civil lawsuit or a criminal prosecution.
“The terror attack in Buffalo has once again revealed the depths and danger of the online forums that spread and promote hate,” James said. “The fact that an individual can post detailed plans to commit such an act of hate without consequence, and then stream it for the world to see is bone-chilling and unfathomable.”
The attorney general’s office is sending a letter to the social media companies instructing them to retain relevant documents.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the victims and their families,” a Discord spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News. “Hate and violence have no place on Discord. We are doing everything we can to assist law enforcement in the investigation.”
Hochul also announced the creation of a new domestic terrorism unit within the state Department of Homeland Security, meant to establish best practices to confront the intersection of guns and racially motivated threats.
Even before the mass shooting in Buffalo, there was a focus on guns in the state. Illegal gun possession statistics were up last month in the state and country’s largest city, New York City. New York police made 146 more arrests for illegal guns in April 2022 versus April 2021, a 65% increase, according to the NYPD. Shooting incidents, however, did drop 29% in April 2022 versus April 2021.
Proposals already under discussion in the state Capitol include requiring local law enforcement to report recovered weapons to a federal database in a timely manner, and allowing the state to conduct its own background checks.
New requirements could also be put in place for gun dealers, beefing up training for staff and record keeping.
Gendron is expected to make his next court appearance on Thursday.
Meanwhile, loved ones of those killed in the attack were preparing for the first funeral on Friday.
Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton is expected to speak at the funeral of Hayward Patterson, 67, a church deacon. Sharpton’s National Action Network has agreed to cover the funeral costs of all 10 victims killed.
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